The clergyman’s wife is an art restorer. The children are a cheery bunch, and the youngest looks set to follow his father into the village rugby team in due course. The church stands on a charming green sloping up from the road, with an adjoining hall where the Sunday school and social gatherings take place.
It sounds like an Anglican parish of the Miss Marple era, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It’s a thriving Catholic church and the clergyman, Fr Ed Tomlinson, is a priest in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
When Benedict XVI instituted the ordinariate, it was with the aim of inviting Anglicans to bring their heritage – liturgical, musical, social, cultural – into full communion with the Catholic Church. And for those who don’t quite know what that means, you can easily visit some ordinariate parishes and find out for yourself.
There are not many, but there is an interesting variety. To note three: St Anselm’s, Pembury (described above) is in Kent, and began life as a rather bleak hall built as an outstation for the nearby parish of Tunbridge Wells. Under ordinariate care it is now a rather delightful church: altar rails around the sanctuary, hand-embroidered kneelers in traditional designs and a fine outdoor Calvary. It serves a busy community with lots of young families.
In Yorkshire, the beautiful church of St Oswald in the village of Gainford is in the care of Fr Ian Grieves of the Darlington ordinariate. The parish has a surpliced choir, glorious music and a busy round of social events. And then there’s the ordinariate parish I know best, the Church of the Most Precious Blood, London Bridge, where the priest is Fr Christopher Pearson. The children’s choir sings Merbecke at the main Sunday Mass. There are street processions several times a year, as well as weekday lunchtime Confessions and Masses for City workers.
The thing these ordinariate parishes have in common is that they are thriving, with packed congregations and a sense of confidence in what they are doing.
“But are they real Catholics?” I’ve been asked – usually by people who know that the answer is “Yes” but are attempting to make a snide point. It may be resentment (“Why didn’t they come in earlier?”), or tribal loyalty (“I’m just Catholic: why are they getting something special?”), or irritation because the whole project somehow challenges the cosy assumption that religion is on the decline and there’s not much we can do about it.
Yes, ordinariate members are real, full, dedicated members of the Catholic Church. And a parish in ordinariate care is a fortunate one. Such a parish will now typically have good music, a dignified liturgy and enjoyable celebrations of major feast days. I was invited to a superb St George’s Day dinner at Gainford village hall, complete with Shakespeare-laden speeches and the arrival of St George in full armour.
Ordinariate parishes also have a strong sense of mission and evangelisation. Children strewing flowers walk in procession before the Blessed Sacrament; leaflets with information on Mass times and other events are posted through doors; and parish groups and activities thrive.
Of course these things can and do happen in other Catholic parishes. But the point is that the ordinariate has multiplied the number of parishes doing them, and injected some new vigour into Catholic life generally.
Why, then, don’t more cradle Catholics know about it all and share in a sense of enthusiasm? Partly because the ordinariate simply isn’t as large as it could and should be. There were, and are, a good number of Anglicans distressed at events in their own communion. But the advantages of remaining in the Cof E are strong.
And the Catholic Church makes demands: joining the ordinariate requires an unequivocal affirmation of belief in the teachings of the Church as stated in the Catechism. It is not a matter of simply feeling that the Cof E has got a bit foolish or that its clergy can’t claim apostolic succession. A decision to enter full communion with Rome is about more than that. It has to be made after earnest reflection – and will inevitably involve some sacrifice, perhaps even heartache.
How did I – a cradle Catholic who barely entered an Anglican church until adulthood – get involved with the ordinariate? Partly it’s historical: for years I wrote for the magazine produced by Forward in Faith, a group formed after the 1992 vote for women priests, to give a voice to orthodoxy within the Cof E. When Benedict XVI announced the ordinariate, it seemed that these people’s prayers had been answered – and more generously than they had ever dared to hope. I shared in that enthusiasm. As a Catholic journalist I was also naturally interested in the project simply as news.
But as I got to know the project – and the people – better, I wanted to help, to be part of something that truly is a new chapter in our country’s long history. It is bound up with the drama of how the faith first came here in Roman times, how it was renewed with the mission from Rome to the Anglo-Saxons and how it has never been lost.
The ordinariate isn’t going to heal the wounds of the Reformation suddenly, and there has been disappointment – perhaps in Benedict XVI’s heart too – that in the end, many who had long begged for this venture failed to respond when it came. But Christian history is usually like that, and the story continues.
Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian